Is vulture capitalism swallowing the most vulnerable?

Vast tracts of land remain polluted 25 years after Rio Tinto closed its mine in Bougainville, PNG. Antony Loewenstein

The story in last weekend’s Sydney’s Daily Telegraph was stark:

“[Prime Minister] Kevin Rudd will warn people smugglers he stands ready to create an island from hell in Papua New Guinea housing 10,000 asylum seekers.”

The message, an “exclusive” by News Corp Australia journalist Samantha Maiden, was to inform refugees that Australia would not tolerate ongoing boat arrivals and that PNG was their worst nightmare. The warning was to avoid being warehoused for years in a tent city. Whoever wins the federal election on September 7 has pledged to continue this off-shore, arguably illegal, cruelty. It’s Australian-led imperialism of the crudest kind.

Too often we ignore an examination of which companies will benefit from massively expanding facilities for asylum seekers. For the last few decades, Australia has outsourced this policy to countless unaccountable multinationals, such as Britain’s G4S and Serco, who make huge profits from asylum seekers languishing in their non-care.

Profits of Doom

In my new book, Profits of Doom, I investigate the grubby deals that have enriched corporations but left countless guards and refugees suffering mental health problems. It’s the perfect storm of neo-liberal “reform”, copied from the US and UK since the 1970s, where the role of the state is reduced and essential public services are outsourced to firms with shocking human rights records.

The immigration industrial complex is a global trend that leaves vulnerable men, women and children without properly funded attention.

As part of the book’s research, a senior Serco manager leaked internal documents revealing the massive price-gouging, under-training and under-staffing occurring across its network under a contract worth more than A$1.86 billion. This individual was scathing of the culture within the corporation, desperate to avoid being fined by Canberra for contractual breaches, and willing to tell managers to ignore problems worsened by the cheapest care possible, namely long-term isolation and rampant self-harm by asylum seekers.

Apart from visiting some of Australia’s most remote centres, such as Curtin in Western Australia and Christmas Island, the aim of the book is to uncover the global trends that were outlined in Naomi Klein’s 2007 best-seller, [The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism](http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7iW1SHPgUAQ](http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7iW1SHPgUAQ). The Canadian writer focused on the ways in which natural and man-made disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq conflict, were the perfect vehicles for private companies to sell their wares and make massive profits.

Profits of Doom, and an upcoming documentary of the same name, expands Klein’s thesis by arguing that war, aid, resources and detention centres are now targets for rampant outsourcing. The results for locals in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea is almost universally negative. It’s a reality largely ignored by the mainstream media, with many journalists equally committed to the same economic plan outlined by the political elites. It’s a cosy club that says plenty about the insularity of the reporter’s world where physical and psychological embedding has replaced independence.

Proxy forces

Take Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. Australian mining company Rio Tinto ran a highly profitable mine in the province until the late 1980s. Landowners and communities gained precious little from the operation. Environmental destruction was rampant - even today, 25 years after its closure, vast tracts of land remain polluted with little prospect of a proper clean-up - and local resistance was almost inevitable. A war ensued with a guerrilla force on one side and Rio Tinto and the PNG and Australian governments on the other. Mining-backed militias caused carnage and up to 20,000 locals were killed in the years-long battle.

Today there are renewed calls by Rio Tinto, Canberra and the Bougainville government to forget the past. Many PNG ministers opposed the mine years ago but, with corporate and AusAid backing, now support large-scale mining.

But without investigations into crimes allegedly committed by Rio Tinto’s proxy forces, history is destined to repeat itself. There are alternatives to mining for a poor province, such as tourism and agriculture, but Australia’s pro-mining agenda bullies poor nations to give access to Australian corporations to profit from what lies under the ground.

This is just one example where vulture capitalism is running rampant. In Afghanistan we are told that the Western war is winding down, but an army of private contractors and militias will remain long after 2014. This is simply a rebranded occupation. There are currently around 108,000 contractors in the nation, most of whom operate under a legal code that ignores abuses.

In Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, the nation is suffering under a weight of NGOs, UN soldiers and US pressure to be used as a base for clothing sweatshops servicing Walmart and Kmart. Like so many nations, from Pakistan to PNG, Haiti craves true independence, including the ability to thrive with aid that doesn’t enrich for-profit corporations.

Challenging unaccountable companies, and the states, media and businesses that support them, is a key aim of my work. It’s inspiring to see individuals and groups across the world, who are fighting for justice and sovereignty. Empowering them and raising their voices, while pushing for an alternative economic model that doesn’t encourage unregulated capitalism, is the only way forward.